Clara Bow was nobody’s fool. In 1962, three decades after her reign as the biggest female star in movies, Bow wrote in a letter about the recent death of one of her successors, Marilyn Monroe. “I never met [Monroe], but if I had, I would have tried very hard to help her,” Bow wrote. “A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered.”
Bow knew what she was talking about. By the late twenties she was the toast of Hollywood, the ultimate jazz baby; her lively persona spoke perfectly to her era, even though the movies themselves didn’t speak. (Her performances in movies like Wings and It – the movie that gave her an enduring nickname – are still delightful to watch today.) But by the time talking pictures were on their way in, Bow was on her way out; she was worn down by fast living, damaged by childhood traumas, and rejected by a fickle public. “Tired, hurt, and bewildered,” Bow gave up her movie career in 1933. She was only 28.
Simpatico Theatre Project’s The It Girl tells Bow’s story, and while it only scratches the surface of her life, it captures her essence, and examines her legacy, perfectly. Amanda Schoonover, her hair in a flaming red pageboy bob and her petite frame in (and out of) a series of stylish flapper duds, acts and dances through a series of vignettes that encapsulate the highs and lows of Bow’s life. But except for brief spoken segments at the beginning and end, it’s all done in pantomime, presented as if it were a silent film. A scene where Clara auditions for her first movie role by using only her facial expressions to convey pre-defined emotions – a video screen shows a series of twenties-style title cards with titles like “Scared,” “Flirty,” “Angry,” “Seductive,” and “Surprised” – is a knowing and affectionate parody of silent film acting techniques.
Much of The It Girl is given over to exceptional dance routines that mix tap, ballet and jazz with expressive movement that convey Bow’s story very effectively. (K.O. DelMarcelle is the dance consultant, with Peter Andrew Danzig and Arlen Hancock billed as Movement Consultants.) Schoonover partners for most of the show with Anthony Crosby, billed as “Assistant to Miss Bow,” who plays all the men in her life – most of whom attempt to control her, with varying degrees of success. (Crosby dances superbly, though his long hair and beard don’t belong in Bow’s era.) Throughout the show authentic music of the twenties and thirties (including Duke Ellington and the Boswell Sisters) plays, alternating with ironic, jazzy takes on more recent pop hits.
The It Girl does a good job of examining Bow, and Schoonover captures not only Bow’s love of performance but also her desperate sadness and willingness to please. But The It Girl has more on its mind than strict biography. Schoonover and her co-creators (Crosby and Director Brenna Geffers) connect Bow with themes of feminism, male control, and the machinery of fame.
Schoonover begins the show playing herself, presenting an honor at a local awards show; she’s just another talking head at yet another ceremony. But soon unseen forces rob her of her individuality (and her voice), and it’s then that she’s transformed into Bow and becomes a star. Later the show puts Bow’s career into context by linking her to sex symbols of other eras, as photos of starlets from Jean Harlow to Jayne Mansfield to Anne Hathaway appear onscreen. One by one, we see new stars getting sold to us, only to be discarded, like Bow, when the gods of fame demand someone new for us to worship.
The It Girl doesn’t so much conclude as come to an abrupt stop. A ballet doesn’t fit the tone of the show. (A scene that tells us something of Bow’s post-retirement life would be more fitting.) Until that point, though, The It Girl is an engrossing study of the machinery of show business and sexuality through the prism of one fascinating life.
Courtney Boches’ costumes are sleek and stylish, and Geffers’ witty projections complement the storytelling.
Running Time: One hour, with no no intermission.
The It Girl plays through February 7, 2016 at Simpatico Theatre Project, performing at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake – 1512 Spruce Street, in Philadelphia, PA. Tickets can be purchased online.